Food Bank 101: Everything You Need to Know About Food Banks

Front of Feeding America West Michigan food bank

Check out the Q&A below to find answers to many questions you may have about food banks!

What is a food bank?

A food bank is a non-profit organization that gathers, prepares and distributes food to food pantries and meal programs serving neighbors in need. Food banks act as food storehouses and distribution facilities for other agencies working to end hunger and usually do not give out food directly to people facing hunger themselves.

What is a food pantry?

A food pantry is a place where anyone can go to receive food during a time of need. When supplied with food from a food bank, pantries are able to serve many more people from their surrounding area. Pantries look different in every community. For example, they can be connected to a church, school, or community organization, or they can be an independent organization.

What is the difference between a food bank and a food pantry?

Unlike a food pantry, a food bank has the space and capacity to handle large donations from the food industry. For example, a food bank has room for a donation of thousands of pounds of frozen, bulk carrots in one of its coolers and can safely process that donation into family-sized portions in its reclamation department. Food banks and food pantries work together to fill neighbors’ plates. The food bank sources, processes and temporarily stores large quantities of various foods. Then, food pantries choose the items and quantities they need to do their work.

What is a Mobile Food Pantry?

Mobile Food Pantries are like farmers markets on wheels that provide supplemental groceries—including produce, protein, dairy, grains and more—to anyone in need at no charge. The food distributions are run in partnership with local agencies like churches, schools and community centers.

Why are food banks important?

Right now, 1 in 8 of our neighbors is at risk of hunger, including nearly 65,000 children. This risk means they are food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The causes of food insecurity are complex, but a few of the reasons that lead neighbors to be in need include system failure, insufficient income and lack of access to nutritious choices. Check out our “Why We’re Needed” page to learn more.

How do food banks get food to distribute?

At the Feeding America West Michigan food bank, we gather food from a variety of sources, such as farmers, manufacturers, retailers, distributors, the USDA and food drives. We also purchase food to fill in any gaps in donations.

Why do companies have so much surplus food?

Food waste occurs at every stage of the food system—from the farm to the dinner table. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted. Reasons for food waste include bumper crops, package misprints, storage and transportation issues, imperfect aesthetics and over ordering. While much of the food waste occurs during production, 58 percent occurs at consumption (in homes or restaurants), according to the World Resources Institute.

The food system in the United States aims to produce just the right amount of food, based on historical purchasing trends. This means if something suddenly stops selling well, there’s surplus. This showed up in reverse early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many people began rushing the stores to purchase shelf-stable food. The food system hadn’t expected so many sales at once and didn’t have warehouses full of extra waiting in reserve, so the shelves went bare.

What donations does the food bank need the most?

Both monetary and food donations are important forms of support for the food bank. At Feeding America West Michigan, for every $10 donated, 40 meals are provided to those experiencing hunger. If you are interested in donating food items, check out our list of most-needed items or check out the “Ways to Donate Food” page on our website to learn more.

What area does the food bank serve?

Our food bank serves 40 counties including most of the west side of the Lower Peninsula and the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Within that service area, we work with over 700 food pantries and meal programs. This includes Mobile Food Pantry partners who coordinate over 1,400 Mobile Food Pantries each year. Wondering where to find charitable food near you? Check out to look at your options.

Are there other food banks in Michigan?  

Yes! Ours is 1 of 7 Feeding America member food banks serving Michigan. The Food Bank Council of Michigan developed this map to show each food bank’s service area. Our 40 counties are green.

What’s your connection to the Feeding America national organization?  

Feeding America West Michigan is 1 of 200 food banks in the national network. Together, we serve neighbors in need across the entire country.

What’s the government’s role in hunger-relief efforts?  

For every one meal the Feeding America network provides, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides nine. Because of SNAP and other government hunger-relief programs, many neighbors have consistent access to nourishing food. Other programs include:

  • WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), which serves young children and mothers
  • TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides food from farms and other places to families in need, often distributed by food banks
  • NSLP (National School Lunch Programs), which provides lunch to children each school day

All of these programs, and more, work together to mitigate and decrease food insecurity across the country.

What role do nonprofits fill in hunger-relief efforts?  

Government hunger-relief programs don’t eliminate the need for charitable food assistance. For example, a family facing unemployment may need charitable food assistance while they wait for SNAP benefits to come through. Or a low-income family may make just a little bit too much to qualify for any government programs. Or a senior living on a fixed income might qualify for only $16 in SNAP benefits. Or children who qualify for the National School Lunch Program during the week may not have access to other government hunger-relief programs on the weekends. In all of these situations, the charitable food system can step in and fill the gaps.

If you have any other questions, keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts discussing more about those we serve, partners, donors, volunteers and more! You can also check out our FAQ page or send us an email.

Written by Content Specialist Kelly Reitsma